The Man Who Invented Christmas How Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits By Les Standiford 241 pages. Crown Publishers
Creamed turkey. Curried turkey. Turkey à la king. Turkey potpies. Turkey macaroni casserole. … If only Ebenezer Scrooge had not, in the excitement of his transformation from miser to humanitarian, diverged from the traditional Christmas goose to surprise Bob Cratchit with a turkey “twice the size of Tiny Tim.” But – alas – he did, and as “A Christmas Carol” approaches its 165th birthday, a Google search answers the plaint “leftover turkey” with more than 300,000 promises of recipes to dispatch it. As for England’s goose-raising industry, it tanked.
Scrooge. Tiny Tim. Bah, Humbug! “A Christmas Carol” may no longer effect the “sledgehammer blow” its author intended to bring down “on behalf of the poor and unfortunate,” but more than a century and a half after its publication in 1843, it remains one of the rare novels to have infiltrated popular culture, leaving the impress of its characters and language and choice of appropriately celebratory fowl even on those who have never read it or seen one of its countless stage and film adaptations. Scrooge and his edifying ghosts are so much a part of Christmas that the idea their creator might actually have “invented” the holiday as we know it is neither new nor original to Les Standiford.
“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a good title, too catchy to resist, perhaps, as Standiford admits that the public’s embrace of Dickens’s short novel is but one evidence of the 19th century’s changing attitude toward Christmas. In 1819, Washington Irving’s popular “Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent” had “glorified” the “social rites” of the season. Clement Moore’s 1823 poem “The Night Before Christmas” introduced a fat and jolly St. Nick whose obvious attractions eclipsed what had been a “foreboding figure of judgment” as likely to distribute canings as gifts.
Queen Victoria and her Bavarian husband, Albert, “great boosters of the season,” had installed a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle each year since 1840, encouraging a fad that spread overseas to America by 1848. In “The Descent of Man” (1871), Charles Darwin announced that celebrants of the season had a more tangible relationship to apes than to annunciations, further secularizing what the Christian church hadn’t conceived but poached (along with Yule logs and stockings to stuff) from German pagan practices.
A writer and his era’s zeitgeist may be “animated by the same energy and faith,” as Peter Ackroyd observes in his 1990 biography of Scrooge’s creator, but the idea of Dickens’s responsibility for what has become an orgy of spending is one he dismisses as humbuggery.
What is true is that Christmas, more than any other holiday, offered a means for the adult Dickens to redeem the despair and terrors of his childhood. In 1824, after a series of financial embarrassments drove his family to exchange what he remembered as a pleasant country existence for a “mean, small tenement” in London, the 12-year-old Dickens, his schooling interrupted, was sent to work 10-hour days at a shoe blacking factory in a quixotic attempt to remedy his family’s insolvency. Not even a week later, his father was incarcerated in the infamous Marshalsea prison for a failure to pay a debt of £40 to a baker. At this, Dickens’s “grief and humiliation” overwhelmed him so thoroughly that it retained the power to overshadow his adult accomplishments. And because Dickens’s tribulations were not particular to him but emblematic of the Industrial Revolution the concerns that inform his fiction were shared by millions of potential readers.
A Dickens novel (“Oliver Twist,” “Little Dorrit,” “Bleak House”) announces more than cloaks its agenda to reveal social injustice, especially the plight of those two “abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” children peering out from under the robe worn by the Ghost of Christmas Present.
“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want,” the Ghost tells the quaking Scrooge. “No perversion of humanity … has monsters half so horrible and dread.” Dickens intended to make the sufferings of the most vulnerable of the underclass so pungently real to his readers that they could not continue to ignore their need, not so much for charity as for the means to save themselves: education. At least this was his conscious purpose. The deeper truth is that even genius of the magnitude of Dickens’s can’t free an artist from his demons; it can only offer him an arena for engaging them.
The months leading up to the publication of “A Christmas Carol” in December 1843 were not happy ones for Dickens. The most popular writer in England was falling further into debt as he struggled to support a large family.
Having accepted an invitation to speak, on Oct. 5, at a fund-raiser for the Manchester Athenaeum, Dickens was obliged to return to the city that had, in 1838, “disgusted and astonished” him. Considered “the world’s first modern industrial city,” Manchester presented the kind of success that pricked even the most phlegmatic social consciousness, a portrait of such squalor among factory workers that the two years Friedrich Engels spent observing its citizens may well have altered history.
Dickens, galvanized by the response of his Athenaeum audience – “rapt” – and by a renewed vision of the cost of disdaining the plight of children, returned to London having conceived what would be the first project he completed as a whole rather than in serial parts. For six weeks he worked feverishly, delivering a manuscript to the printer in late November, for publication a few days before Christmas.
Standiford tidily explains the appeal of “A Christmas Carol,” its readership “said at the turn of the 20th century to be second only to the Bible’s.” Replacing the slippery Holy Ghost with anthropomorphized spirits, the infant Christ with a crippled child whose salvation waits on man’s – not God’s – generosity, Dickens laid claim to a religious festival, handing it over to the gathering forces of secular humanism. If a single night’s crash course in man’s power to redress his mistakes and redeem his future without appealing to an invisible and silent deity could rehabilitate even so apparently lost a cause as Ebenezer Scrooge, imagine what it might do for the rest of us!
The popularity of “A Christmas Carol” inspired Dickens to commit himself to writing other holiday books, but “The Chimes,” “The Cricket on the Hearth” and “The Battle of Life” couldn’t reproduce the alchemy of their prototype. Too grim, too redux, too calculated.
It was tempting to recreate the success of their predecessor, but hardly necessary. “The Man Who Invented Christmas” may not be necessary, either, not with regard to the juggernaut of Dickens scholarship, but it’s a sweet and sincere addition. A stocking stuffer for the bookish on your holiday list.
Kathryn Harrison’s most recent book is “While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family.”